Smart manufacturing: Digital people in a digital factory

Combining the abilities and knowledge of millennials with the capabilities of a digital factory is changing the face of manufacturing.

By John Clemons, director of Manufacturing IT, Maverick Technologies

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Two major changes are going on right now in the world of manufacturing:

  • Plants are becoming more automated and networked—digitized.
  • The “great shift change” is occurring as retiring workers are replaced by a new generation.

Taken separately, both of these are enormous, but taken together the impact promises to be unprecedented. The combination of people and technology will drive greater change than either individually. Let’s think about why.

Welcome the Millennials

Hundreds of articles have been written about millennials and how they are changing the workforce. As we have been told again and again, millennials are different than Gen X’ers and baby boomers in many ways. This is all just as true when they work in a manufacturing plant. Here are two key elements:

Tech natives: Internet and smartphones were almost ubiquitous when they were small children and the millennials have weaved these technologies into the very fabric of their lives. They trust technology implicitly, and in many respects, cannot function without it. Information must be available with a few swipes at the touchscreen. Communication needs to be direct, instantaneous and unaffected by distance. It should be just as easy to keep in touch with someone in Rio de Janeiro as in Denver.

Social responsibility: This generation has a strong sense of how an individual’s actions should fit into the larger picture of sustainability, and how what happens today could affect the future. Any career path should have some element designed to serve the greater good and deliver something meaningful to society. So how do these characteristics affect manufacturing?

Old-school versus digital plants

Looking at new opportunities requires thinking about what we have come from. Picture a traditional manufacturing environment. There may be computerized machines and robots, but the general concern from management is capacity—finding ways to make the most widgets, or produce the most product in a process plant, with the greatest quality and efficiency. There’s nothing wrong with this approach if the only goals are quantity, quality and efficiency—which is why this model has survived for so long.

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But we’ve come into the world of mass customization. Yes, that term has been kicking around for a long time, but it’s difficult to implement in a meaningful way in an old-school plant. Customers may ask for new things, but unless a facility has been set up with the specific plan of creating custom products, making “specials” is often regarded as a nuisance because it interferes with regular production. Moreover, systems designed to support regular manufacturing (part drawings, item numbers, licensed processes, etc.) make it difficult and expensive to make anything outside the normal stream of production.

Digital manufacturing makes customization easier, or at least it can if manufacturers put its capabilities to work. But new technologies in old-school environments are often used to pursue the same goals as always: quantity, quality and efficiency for the smallest number of products and processes. Customers are still steered away from what they need to existing output.

Clashes with Millennials

When hired to work in such an environment, most millennials have a hard time understanding why manufacturing convenience invariably overcomes any desire to satisfy customer demand. They want to get rid of the any-color-as-long-as-it’s-black mindset and give customers what they are asking for. They want manufacturing to adapt to customers rather than the other way around. If the systems can’t handle the new reality, they want to change the systems.

Smart human beings figure out how to solve the customer’s problem, then the machines make the product.

If the traditionally-minded company digs in its heels, the ambitious millennial will look for another job. The company will continue with its methods until it is driven out of business by more agile competitors. A more sensible company will ask what must change to embrace the new reality, realizing the change will be disruptive.

Matching people and technology

As just suggested, millennials working in an old-school environment will find the experience highly frustrating. If the kinds of technologies used in all other aspects of life are suddenly withdrawn and the individual finds him or herself in a world of binders and manual processes, it won’t last. Questions along the lines of, “Why do I have to do it this way?” will be constant until he or she simply gives up.

An old-school manager in a digital environment won’t necessarily experience frustration, but using all the new capabilities to support traditional manufacturing approaches represent a wasted opportunity.

The ultimate combination is placing millennials in digital factory environments. That’s when good things really begin to happen.

Everything is connected

When millennials come into a digital factory, they take to it like a duck to water. Everything is interconnected and the entire process, from product design through all manufacturing steps, is done on or controlled by computers. The actual production equipment is heavily automated taking full advantage of the capabilities of robots. The same is true in a process plant, where custom formulizations reside comfortably side by side with standard products.

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Placed in this kind of environment, a millennial can use his or her creativity to the utmost, working with customers to develop and make exactly the kinds of products they demand. Even if quantities are low, it’s possible to create something new and special because the design work is done on a computer, and all the necessary information is sent directly to the manufacturing equipment. If a different hole needs to be drilled in a part or a different color seat inserted into a vehicle, it’s no big deal. If the cheese needs to be extra sharp cheddar instead of just sharp due to changes in consumer demand, this can be done quickly and easily.

Millennials will look at the people working in a facility and push to optimize job functions. They have a strong grasp of what kinds of tasks people should be doing and what should be handled by machines. In that respect, they tend to drive for automation wherever practical. Humans should not be performing robotic tasks because they aren’t good at it. A robotic task should be performed by a robot.

Humans should be innovators and creators, functions which are even more important in a digital environment. A smart individual must figure out how to solve the customer’s problem, and then the machines make the product. People should be smart and creative and given all the tools they need to maximize their creativity.

In some cases, this causes a dilemma for a responsible millennial. The need for manual labor in such an environment is low since automation should be used in every possible application. On the other hand, the desire to provide jobs as an element of greater social responsibility is also strong. Such situations can be difficult to resolve. More on that in a moment.

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